Stigma is when a person is misunderstood, shamed or discriminated against due to things that are out of their control. This is something that many people with mental health challenges face on a day-to-day basis. For people with mental health challenges, sometimes stigma comes in the form of mocking and cruelty. Other times it is subtler: family and friends misunderstanding you, avoiding you, shaming you and blaming you for your challenges. Unfortunately, our society sees people with mental health challenges as strange, lazy, or even violent.
Because of all the negative beliefs surrounding mental illnesses, we begin to internalize those feelings – believing that they are true. We get frustrated, blame ourselves, or try to hide the issues that we face. This often takes an even bigger toll on our mental health. But there are things that you can do to change the way that you think of yourself and learn to speak up to those who lack understanding and awareness.
Come to Terms with Your Mental Health Challenges
Admitting that I have mental health challenges was one of the biggest hurdles I had to face in my journey to recovery. It wasn’t easy. I want to fit in. To be “normal.” I tried to pretend that everything was okay, even though, deep down, I was suffering. I didn’t want people to look down on me or think of me as “crazy” because of my mental health symptoms.
It was hard for me to take the first step in getting help. Although I’d been in therapy most of my life, but my sessions never really seemed to help. Every week I sat in my therapist’s office and lied through my teeth about what was really going on. I was too ashamed to admit just how difficult I had it to myself, let alone to another person. So my challenges went unaddressed and I didn’t get any better.
Eventually I came to a crossroads. I was so sick at the time that I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to admit to myself that there was something wrong and that I couldn’t go on living that way any longer. Which made my next step clear. If I wanted to get any better, I had to get involved in treatment. Speak up honestly about what was really going on, take the medications that my doctor prescribed, and try my best to get better.
It was both freeing and terrifying, but it was my first step toward my journey of recovery and living a better life. From that point on, I was able to finally recognize that I wasn’t weak. I wasn’t lazy. I was sick and I needed help.
Know Your Symptoms
Working with mental health professionals such as a psychiatrist, therapist, or treatment team can give you important insight into your own symptoms. Each individual is unique and experience mental illness differently. I used to think I was lazy and worthless because at times it can be difficult to get out of bed, or clean my apartment. Now that I know how my mental illness affects me, I understand that these are symptoms of my mental health.
Keeping this in mind, I don’t feel so bad about myself. I am able to be more compassionate to myself. More forgiving. I’ve become more self-aware and can now recognize that my symptoms are not personality flaws. Knowing this helps me to fight against them with self-care and belief in myself.
Spend some time learning and thinking about your mental health diagnoses. You may even want to ask your friends and family for input on what they notice.
Avoid Isolation and Speak Up
One of my most self-destructive symptoms is isolating myself from people when I’m feeling bad. I don’t talk to my friends or family as much, and I avoid leaving my house, even if it means missing work or my important therapy appointments. This is detrimental to my mental health. It is important to talk with people about the things you are going through.
Surround yourself with positive, uplifting people that will listen to you and try to understand where you are coming from. Recovery groups are a great way of getting this kind of support. The power of shared understanding can help you feel like you’re not alone. It may be difficult at first to speak up about it, but knowing that you’re not alone and that there are many others that struggle with some of the same things that you do will help you to ward off stigma.
Mental health stigma can be painful, but it doesn’t have to stop you from continuing your journey to wellness. Seek help, get educated, and share with others about your experience. Don’t give up the fight and above all else, treat yourself with kindness.
Sara Reynolds is a Certified Peer Support Specialist living with mental health challenges.